Prototype /

Spatial Prototyping

Exploring media architecture design by asking the right questions

Interactions are situated in space and time. Situating media architecture within the city context requires a ‘research-in-the-wild’1-driven methodology that tackles a complex range of spatial, temporal, socio-technical and aesthetic interactional considerations. The spatial prototyping method is similar to experience prototyping2 but focuses on public experiences in real-world settings, which include the context of use, urban space inhabitants and passers-by. The method enables us to highlight the experiential dimensions: how people think, feel and act in situations with media architecture. It is a nested method that integrates approaches from architecture, anthropology, media art, interaction design and human-computer interaction.

Spatial prototyping uses an exploratory and iterative approach to integrate the hardware placement, media content development, local interactivity and distributed connectivity, creating situations and experiences that differ according to their local urban settings and the types of communities they support through different seasons.3 This is achieved through exploring the questions of where, who, what and how? We can use any of these questions as a starting point for an investigation, before moving onto the next one. By going through the questions multiple times, it is possible to iteratively increase the fidelity of the solution.

For example, starting with the question of ‘where?’, we would identify suitable sites for the implementation. To develop a good understanding of how the built environment in these sites is currently structured, spatial analysis methods can be carried out, such as empirical observations, analysis in terms of visibility and accessibility, and social mapping of the groups and existing social practices—all of which are framed through the temporal aspect. The outcomes will inform the decisions regarding a range of locations suitable for the media installation placement.

Moving to the question of ‘who?’ involves mapping out the project stakeholders and collaborators (e.g. using the stakeholder mapping method), passers-by (single, groups, flows) and local communities and inhabitants. The results from this step inform the approach for engaging with local communities.

The question of ‘what?’ covers the technology (hardware, software) and its affordances (such as touch, touchless, computer vision, etc.).

The final question of ‘how?’ brings all steps together to frame the experience, media content development and interface creation of interactivity and connectivity. This can initially be tested as a real-scale mock-up in the lab with the research team, using other methods such as bodystorming and role-playing.2 The effect of the placement in the urban context can be evaluated through observing behaviours before and after the implementation and capturing, periodically, emergent social interactions using observations and ethnographic methods.

The steps are repeated again, with a higher resolution and a more detailed approach, considering the learning from each step to feed into the next one.

Method Steps

  1. Identify three different sites with three levels of movement flow (high, medium and low). Choose one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon, and observe actual movement on each site for five minutes in each of these hours. Use spatial analysis software for big complex sites. Identify the type of people/communities. Identify the type of activities, such as standing, sitting, talking, on the phone, and whether they are performed alone or in a group.

  2. Think about a simple mock-up of your media object. Define its size, the material and its behaviour. Write down two key behaviours in relation to a person walking by. E.g. the object is one half of a sphere (20 cm), with blue LEDs and two proximity sensors (60 cm range) on each side:

    • the object emits light → a person walks by → if within 60 cm distance, the object vibrates

    • the object emits light and vibrates → a person walks by → if within 60 cm distance, the object stops vibrating.

  3. Place your mock-up in each of the three sites. Change object placement and height. Choose three different heights: on the ground, at knee level, on a table. Observe reactions from passers-by. Spend fifteen minutes in each of the three locations with five minutes allocated for each height. Compare reactions to your initial observations before the placement of the mock-up. This exercise can be done by two people.

  4. Develop your mock-up into a prototype with the five key behaviours. Identify any changes to the initial mock-up, after the placement of the mock-up in the real-world setting. Develop a new set of behaviours. It may be useful to involve at least two people in this step.

  5. Place your prototype in each of the three sites. Observe reactions from passers-by. Spend five minutes in each of the three locations and for each of the key behaviours. Compare reactions to your initial observations before the placement of the mock-up. Again, you may involve at least two people in this step.

  6. Continue with the steps in Figure X iteratively. Use feedback from your site: observations of movement flow, behaviour of people and behaviour of the media object. Develop the next round of iteration.